Let’s talk about Shakespeare and betrayal.

You know those jaw-dropping moments in reality TV where best friends secretly trash-talk each other, or someone is dating two people at once, or some other painful secret is revealed? Yeah, Shakespeare’s been doing that since the 16th century.

As we cover on our themes section of the site, betrayal is one of the most prominent themes in Shakespeare. From Julius Caesar getting murdered by his close friends to tons of guys just straight up abandoning their girlfriends, Shakespeare’s plays often delve into this agonizing experience.

So, here’s a list of five of the most painful betrayals in Shakespeare – and how you can stay out of the same situations!

1. Caesar’s assassination, Julius Caesar

Caesar is set upon by senators wearing white on the ides of march, in Roman play Julius Caesar

 Caesar, pictured just before his murder by the Roman Senate.

The betrayal

“Et tu, Brute?” Yep, this one cuts deep. While you can go back and forth on whether or not Caesar deserved to be executed for the crime of ambition (the characters in this play certainly debate the idea), stabbing him 23 times was pretty brutal, and the death blow is delivered by one of his close friends, Brutus. Caesar’s last words (in the play, not irl), “et tu, Brute?” translate to “and you, Brutus?” AKA — “Brutus, my guy, even you’re gonna do me dirty like this?” While Brutus wasn’t one of the initial conspirators, his actions are powerful; it’s painful to watch Caesar’s final moment of realization as he dies, betrayed by his friend.

How to avoid it

I mean, unless you’re living a way crazier life than I am, you don’t have a government planning on executing you because you’re trying to be king. But, just in case you have some (literally) backstabbing friends, maybe up your humbleness. Admit to your mistakes, defer to other people to take charge once in a while, that sort of thing — don’t give people a reason to talk about you behind your back. Oh, and beware the Ides of March.

2. Othello and Desdemona (a false betrayal!), Othello

Laurence Fishburne as Othello

 Laurence Fishburne and Irène Jacob as Othello and Desdemona in Othello, directed by Oliver Parker

The betrayal

So, this one is confusing. While the theme of betrayal in the play is centered around Othello believing Desdemona has betrayed him, she’s basically the only one who doesn’t do any betraying at all. Instead, Iago betrays Othello by lying to him about Desdemona’s faithfulness. And, if you think about it, Othello’s really the one who betrays Desdemona by murdering her instead of believing that she’s innocent. (To be clear, definitely not saying Othello is the villain here — it’s totally Iago, and he fakes evidence so maliciously well that it’s no wonder Othello believes him.)

How to avoid it

Talk to your partner. If Othello had said, “hey, so I’m hearing some crazy things from Iago and I’d like to hear your side of the story,” maybe the play would have had a good ending for the lovers and an even more tragic ending for the person who really deserved it — Iago. While it totally makes sense that Othello fell for Iago’s crafty tricks, if somebody comes out of left field with accusations about your partner’s fidelity, talk to them before you do anything too rash.

3. The ultimate set of betrayals, King Lear

Sir Ian McKellen as Lear in King Lear

 Sir Ian McKellen as Lear in King Lear. (Credit: pbs.org)

The betrayal

Oh boy, there’s a whole MESS of betrayal in this play — both perceived and actual. To start off, Lear feels that his daughter Cordelia has betrayed him by saying that she loves him no more or less than her “bond,” while her sisters (Goneril and Regan), conversely, espouse fake love for their father. Because he perceives this as a betrayal, Lear disowns Cordelia — so, since she really did nothing wrong, in actuality he betrayed her. Lear later finds out just how fake his other daughters’ love for him is when they purposely take over his kingly role and leave him in the dust. He then realizes where the true betrayal lies, and sees that he was wrong all along. But even on top of that, this dude Edmund (who was born out of wedlock, so the product of betrayal), is romantically involved with both Goneril and Regan, who are both married (so he’s betraying them while they’re betraying their husbands). Goneril then poisons Regan (sisterly murder betrayal!) and then kills herself. Phew!

How to avoid it

COMMUNICATE. WITH. YOUR. FAMILY. This whole disaster could have been avoided if people just talked to each other honestly. Cordelia tries to do that, but with such a dysfunctional, non-communicative rest of the family, it doesn’t work out too well. If his relationship with his daughters was already strong, Lear never would have had to make his daughters compete to prove they love him most in the first place. Parents, talk to your kids. Kids, talk to your parents.

4. Angelo and Mariana in Measure for Measure

Angelo

 Credit: Helen Maybanks, TimeOut Magazine

The betrayal

There are a lot of absolute jerks in Shakespeare’s plays, and Angelo is definitely one of them. He’s not a scheming villain like Iago or Richard III, but he performs some absolutely terrible, sadly much more everyday cruelty. Trying to force Isabella to sleep with him to save her brother’s life is just absolutely horrifying, but fewer people talk about his awful behavior in his relationship with Mariana. Late in the play, we learn that Angelo was once engaged to Mariana, but as soon as he found out that she didn’t have as much money as he thought he just straight up ghosted her, leaving her singing sad love songs by herself for five years (literally not kidding, that’s in the play). Mariana agrees to pretend to be Isabella and sleep with him, and then when she shows up in court to explain the plan, he claims that he didn’t marry her because “her reputation was disvalued in levity” (AKA, she was sleeping around). Seriously?? Bail on her because of money and then make up accusations about her reputation? What is your deal, dude??

How to avoid it

Honestly, I don’t know what to tell you on this one other than: don’t date jerks. And have some self-respect! Even after all this, Mariana begs to marry Angelo. Poor girl. Like, I know this has put you in a whole funk for five years, but I proooomise that you don’t want to marry this guy! Just…listen to what people say about your partner, beware of gold-diggers, and maybe don’t keep pursuing them after they abandon you for five years.

5. Hal and Falstaff in Henry IV, Part II

The Top 5 Shakespearean Betrayals... And How To Avoid Them! 1

 Credit: Craig Schwartz, Los Angeles Times

The betrayal

There are a lot of betrayals of lovers, family members, and political leaders in Shakespeare — but this one has to be the most cutting betrayal of a friend. During his days as a young prince, Hal spends all his time partying with the jolly and indulgent knight, Sir John Falstaff. Yes, Falstaff is goofy, cowardly, corrupt, and likes stealing (even though he isn’t very good at it), but he is a true friend to Hal. But when Prince Hal becomes King Henry the Fifth, he needs to shed his image as a partying teenager and take on a persona of royal authority — which means cutting Falstaff out of his life. At his coronation, Hal publicly berates Falstaff and then banishes him from the court. In the next play, Henry V, we learn that Falstaff has died of a broken heart.

How to avoid it

Beware of social climbers. Hal knew he’d one day have to ascend to the role of king, but be on the lookout for any friends who might dip once they get a little bit of success and popularity. True friends will stick around no matter what.

Which of these five Shakespeare betrayals do you think was the harshest? Let us know in the comments below!

Written by Emily Jackoway
Written by Emily JackowayNoSweatShakespeare contributor

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